In the heart of a sprawling slum on the outskirts of the city, Laura Bush stood in a dayroom at a charity hospital and offered a few remarks about women's empowerment. Though most of the audience followed her words with rapt attention, six women sitting at a table in the room's center barely glanced up. No time for chat with a deadline looming.
The women, most from the surrounding township of Khayelitsha and all diagnosed with HIV, kept their eyes on their work, filling an order from New York designer Kenneth Cole for more than 5,000 beaded lanyards.
The next hot trend in charity fashion may come out of this workshop, where a health organization called the Mothers' Programmes is helping to sustain unemployed HIV-infected mothers and their babies. The group launched Mothers Creations, a beading project, in 2003.
Churning out accessories, including cell phone pouches, bracelets, lanyards and carrying cases for condoms, Mothers Creations has netted more than $300,000 since it was started, charity officials said. The money has allowed some of the 100 or so female workers to purchase homes.
Thanks in part to a former Los Angeles television producer who now heads the group's umbrella organization, Mothers Creations beads are being catapulted into the international fashion scene. Charity-designed accessories took off last year, when Nike Inc. and the Lance Armstrong Foundation began selling yellow "Livestrong" wristbands to raise money for cancer research. Nike says it has sold more than 50 million bracelets, at $1 each. Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa, known as DATA, an awareness organization co-founded by U2 singer Bono, has sold 1.3 million of its white rubber "One" wristbands.
Just like those wristbands have attracted celebrity wearers, Mothers Creations baubles have already drawn the attention of a few stars. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs has visited the workshop, while the organization's Web site shows Beyonce Knowles rifling through a selection of accessories. Kenneth Cole discovered them during a visit in May. Intrigued by the materials, Cole sat on the floor with scratch paper and sketched out a few designs for beaded sandals, which the charity said it is now negotiating to produce.
While they were previously only available at fundraisers, the beads are being adopted by some big companies, too. MTV's retail store in Times Square started carrying Mothers Creations cell phone covers in 2003, but discontinued them this year when the charity stopped selling them on a consignment basis.
Cable channel Showtime, like MTV a unit of Viacom Inc., purchased about 1,000 lanyards for a recent event, while Church & Dwight Co.'s Trojan division commissioned 500 condom-carrying cases featuring the brand logo in beads.
On her two-day visit this week, Bush wore a beaded Mothers Creations AIDS ribbon to many of the events she attended. Similar pins sell for $2.50 in the United States. "You might not know this, but all my staff wears your lanyards" for their security badges, Bush told the six beading women. The lanyards had been purchased by her advance staff.
The designs aren't expensive, especially considering the time they take to make. A cell phone cover, one of the most elaborate items, costs about $20, and takes about three days to make. Most commercial craft cooperatives don't pay their workers until items are sold. But workers for Mothers Creations are paid in cash as soon as they complete an item. The items are then sold locally for the same price. A lanyard that sells for about $7 in Cape Town costs $12 in the United States.
Inventory and marketing duties fall to the charity's staff, and especially to Robin Smalley, the American executive director of the Mothers' Programmes. Smalley said that although Mothers Creations workers appreciate the money from the Cole contract, they also aren't beyond feeling the thrill other designers experience. "The Kenneth Cole contract is great but they're really excited about seeing their lanyards on Fifth Avenue," she said.
John Jurgensen contributed to this report.